by H. L. Richard
We need a new paradigm for understanding Hinduism not merely for the purpose of clear and accurate thought, but as a necessary prerequisite for comprehending contextualization in the Hindu world.
Hinduism is often defined in terms like the following:
Hinduism is an ancient religion that developed in India when Aryan invaders mixed with the indigenous populations around 1800 B.C. Hinduism is a complex and diverse religion; high philosophies and polytheistic worship mark its spiritual aspects, with mysticism a prominent characteristic. Hinduism teaches that true mystical religion leads one beyond humanly-limited understandings of truth and morality—each individual can encounter the divine within his or her own innermost being. Hinduism developed a unique social organization, the caste system, whereby dominant high castes imposed their authority over lower and untouchable castes. The Hindu religion has been undergoing a remarkable transition for the past two centuries, with various types of reformed Hinduism developing alongside revanchist expressions (commonly referred to as Hindu fundamentalism) in response to the impact of the West and modernization.
Many readers who have some background understanding of Hinduism will affirm the general outline of the above definition. But that “definition” is a ruse; it is radically false in almost all its components. That this fictitious description summarizes much of evangelical writing on Hinduism and resonates with evangelical thought indicates a serious need to rethink how we understand Hinduism.
We need a new paradigm for understanding Hinduism not merely for the purpose of clear and accurate thought, but as a necessary prerequisite for comprehending contextualization in the Hindu world. Since the context of the Hindu world is “Hinduism,” error in its definition skews any discussion or effort towards contextualization. A more acceptable paradigm for Hinduism immediately points in helpful directions for contextualization issues.
First, I offer some brief comments on paradigms. Thomas Kuhn’s ground-breaking 1962 study on “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” has led to an understanding of how intellectual constructs (and group commitments) determine our outlook in areas vastly beyond the physical sciences that Kuhn focused on. These presuppositional (or even metaphysical) dominant ideas are what is meant by a paradigm. For example, what questions are asked and answered when we think about Hinduism? What terms do we use and what do those terms mean? When new information arises, do many people automatically know where to fit it into the whole scheme of things? In sum, commonly held definitions and perceptions among a significant number of people who view Hinduism from a common framework enable us to speak about a paradigm for understanding Hinduism.
The orientalist paradigm is one such paradigm for understanding Hinduism that I presented in the earlier false definition. Orient-alism has been a hot topic of debate since the landmark publication of Edward Said’s book of that title in 1978. Today it seems that post-Orientalism is discussed as much as Orientalism, and there are still varying definitions (paradigms) for these terms, the details of which go far beyond what this article can explore. For our purposes, a working-level definition of Orientalism is: the study of the East by the West wherein alien constructs were/are introduced and imposed (particularly wherein the East and West were/are falsely dichotomized as fundamentally different), distorting the reality of Eastern phenomena and simultaneously affecting Eastern perceptions and life.
Orientalism is largely discredited in academia today, although debates continue to fine-tune Said’s thesis. The study of why and how orientalist distortions developed, and their impact, will no doubt be studied for decades to come.1 The false definition of Hinduism that opens this article is a classic summary of orientalist distortion (as currently propagated by well- meaning Christians). My main purpose here is to expose that distortion and establish an alternate paradigm.
SUB-PARADIGMS UNDER "HINDUISM"
Numerous sub-paradigms exist within the broader “Hinduism” paradigm, and discussing these will automatically lead up to and influence our understanding of Hinduism. For example, the false definition of Hinduism begins, “Hinduism is an ancient religion…” But what does “religion” mean, what associations does that word carry, what conceptual framework are we automatically forcing Hinduism into when we call it “a religion”?
Important paradigms of ancient history are involved in paradigms of Hinduism. The earlier definition refers to an Aryan invasion of India, an orientalist construct that needs to be abandoned, or at least radically altered. Orientalism is perhaps most famous for postulating a “golden age” of Indian history, an orientalist idea not found in current Christian constructs of Hinduism, but which lives on in some Hindu self-definitions.
Mysticism, included in the definition, is a slippery term. Contrasts of the mystic East and rationalist West are another defining mark of Orientalism, a superficial contrast that radically distorts Eastern realities. Lovers of the East propagate this distraction by assuming that mysticism is superior to rationalism. Those who attempt to discredit the East talk the same superficial lingo due to their assumption that rationalism leads to progress while mysticism is responsible for (their perception of) the East’s morass.
Various paradigms of caste, also mentioned in the definition, deal with this complex subject. I will not present an authoritative framework for caste, but the orientalist paradigm represented in the definition is inadequate and needs to be abandoned.
Finally, discussing reformist and revanchist Hinduism brings up current realities. Scholars’ analysis is most likely to fail and an objective viewpoint is most elusive in discussion of current events, where the failure to perceive clearly is greatest. Thus, only the most tentative paradigms should be considered when discussing the changes taking place in modern Hinduism.
HINDUISM AS A RELIGION
The concept of religion is complex. Werner Post’s contribution to the Roman Catholic encyclopedia of theology, Sacramentum Mundi, states that “there is no generally accepted definition of religion” (1989, 250). Post’s helpful article spells out eight possible paradigms for religion, and a ninth based on the etymological meaning of the Latin term religio, but none of them are fully acceptable. For this article, I sidestep the minefield of defining religion in favor of a simple comparison between Hinduism and Christianity.
Heinrich von Stietencron’s comparison points out that Hinduism contains diversities of ritual, theology, scripture and gods that dwarf the differences between the three great Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He writes, If we were to subsume all these [Semitic faiths] under one umbrella term as various “sects” of one Near-Eastern religion, this would give us a proper equivalent to Hinduism (2001, 40).
But this would never be accepted by votaries of the Semitic faiths, whose convictions about their own religions are so deeply held. Therefore there is no proper way to equate Hinduism as a religion with the phenomena evident in the Semitic religions. Stietencron then shows how a proper equation can be developed:
If we accept Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “religions” and if, compelled by intellectual honesty, we want to apply the same term to comparable phenomena, we cannot avoid concluding that there are a number of different “religions” existing side by side within Hinduism. (2001, 41)
If we adhere to intellectual honesty and consistency in defining our terms, then there are various “religions” within Hinduism, and clearly Hinduism is not a religion.2 What term then should be used to describe the complex phenomena that we call Hinduism? Probably the best term for referring to Hinduism is “civilization.” As European and Chinese civilizations span vast centuries, areas, religions and developments, so also does Hinduism, which is at least close to being a synonym for Indian civilization.
As nearly every basic introduction to Hinduism points out, the first uses of the term “Hindu” (later expanded to “Hinduism”) had geographical rather than religious connotations. Therefore this understanding of Hinduism as a multi-faceted civilization is not an entirely new construct. More significantly, the Supreme Court of India defined Hinduism in civilization terms. In a 1977 definition the Court stated:
In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. The Hindu is inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and is doctrinally tolerant, leaving others—including both Hindus and non-Hindus—whatever creed and worship practices suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu, and the Hindu is disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange Gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than objectionable. He tends to believe that the highest powers complement each other for the well-being of the world and mankind. Few religious ideas are considered to be finally irreconcilable. The core religion does not even depend on the existence or non-existence of God or on whether there is one God or many. Since religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Hinduism is, then, both a civilization and conglomerate of religions, with neither a beginning, a founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization.3
This definition clearly did not settle the issue of how to understand Hinduism, but it is noteworthy that India’s highest court presented a picture so at odds with standard evangelical/orientalist understanding. The most significant point is that how one views Hinduism radically determines the way one thinks about contextualizing the gospel.
If Hinduism is an alternate religion to Christianity, one naturally shrinks from suggestions that the gospel should be introduced within the Hindu religion. This is the working definition of syncretism. But if Hinduism is understood as a civilization, the picture changes completely. The gospel of Christ must be incarnated within every civilization. Our duty to adapt to Hindu civilization should overwhelm any fear of relating to the Hindu “religion.”4
PARADIGMS OF INDIAN HISTORY
Ancient Indian history is presently a source of heated debates, with three competing paradigms vying for a dominant position in modern Indian culture. The orientalist perspective on ancient Indian history has been adopted by numerous associations of Dalit activists. The Aryans, understood as the forefathers of present high caste Hindus, are foreigners to India. These invaders destroyed an earlier Indian civilization and established their own, which included the caste system by which millions of Dalits (outcastes) have been oppressed for millennia. Indian Christians commonly adhere to this paradigm, most of whom are from Dalit backgrounds. The most recent edition of Operation World even presents it as fact.
A radically alternate paradigm has developed over the past decades, associated with the Hindutva movement for “Hindu nationalism.” In this ancient Indian history paradigm, the Aryans are the native people of India, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley, where a great civilization dated at around four millennia ago is still being excavated.
The dominant paradigm in the academic world today lies between these two extremes, which both have strong ideological biases that influence the paradigms. An Aryan migration or infiltration into India from Central Asia still seems a necessary historical construct. The linguistic evidence of the close association of Greek and Sanskrit languages, similarities between ancient Persian and ancient Indian faiths and practices, and differences between Rig Vedic and Indus Valley phenomena all point in this direction. But that these Aryans destroyed an earlier civilization is not supported by any evidence. That they imposed a caste system based on racial superiority is far too simplistic a construct to accept at face value.
This leads us to a brief discussion of caste and where it came from. Scholars generally agree that the origins of caste are unknown and unlikely ever to be fully traced, as Bernard Cohen states:
The origins of the caste system are undoubtedly very complex, and its direct history will probably never be known. No single theory—be it race prejudice; the manipulation of small groups in the society, such as Brahmans who wanted to buttress an exclusive social position; differential variations of occupations, which led to the valuing of some occupations and the despising of others; attempts of some groups within society to maintain their culture in the face of outside pressures; or the development of the idea of pollution and power, which led to fear of loss of power if one had contact with the food or body wastes of another group—has accounted for the origin of the system. None of the single-causal theories has proved satisfactory, and today most anthropologists and sociologists feel it is fruitless to spend much time in trying to find the origins or trace the history of the caste system to its beginnings. (2000, 62)
To think clearly on the subject of caste, two different paradigms for caste need to be defined.
In the first paradigm, various Hindu scriptures teach about a four-fold caste system, referred to by most books that introduce Hinduism. This caste system is varna; Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra caste (varna) groups, with the Dalits (traditionally outcastes or untouchables) as a fifth group outside of those four. Caste in this sense may have never been more than a theoretical construct that did not clearly relate to ground realities. Certainly today this is not particularly relevant (especially when vocations are assigned to the different castes, as is often done in textbooks). The simplicity of the construct too easily conceals the dynamism evident in caste as it has developed and changed over many centuries.
The second paradigm, caste as jati, is much more true to ground realities; there can be no final list or count of jatis. Within the Brahmin caste there are many; among the Dalits there are hundreds. Individuals relate to their family and jati and find a deep sense of belonging and security within each. Caste (jati) has been India’s fundamental social order for many centuries, and has deeply influenced both Islam and Christianity there despite the theoretical claims that those religions transcend caste.
The only way to enter either a caste or Hinduism is by birth, with exceptions for some modern conversion-to-Hinduism sects. Some scholars debate whether caste affiliation was always so strictly tied to birth. The idea that birth in a higher caste is due to the merit of previous lives is a deeply problematic idea in light of biblical teaching; yet this doctrine is not taught today nearly as widely or as strongly as in the past.
More recently, in a massive sociological survey of India that began in the 1980s, the basic units of current Indian society were decisively defined as “communities” rather than as “castes.” Modernization and urbanization are impacting traditional caste structures, but still most of India’s “communities” are caste/(jati)-based.
What is the relationship of caste to Hinduism? In the old paradigm of Hinduism as a religion, caste was a social system sanctioned by but clearly transcending that religion. In the new paradigm of Hinduism as a civilization, caste is the fundamental social order of that civilization. To present the gospel within the Hindu context is thus to present it within a caste-based social order which can only be changed by gradual processes within the civilization (a process that is underway, as seen by Dalit uprisings, a Dalit president and a Dalit speaker of the Indian Parliament in recent years).
Evangelicals commonly summarize Hindu religious teaching by suggesting that monism (or pantheism) is the fundamental reality of Hindu thought. This tendency to misinterpret religious Hinduism in a non-theistic sense is compounded for Western Christians by the development of the New Age Movement, which has roots in some schools of Eastern philosophy and is generally anti-theistic.
In reality, most Hindus believe in and relate to God. That is enough to show that Hinduism in its varying religious expressions is fundamentally theistic. The standard definition of Hinduism that opens this article is perniciously wrong: “Hinduism teaches that true mystical religion leads one beyond humanly—limited understandings of truth and morality—each individual can encounter the divine within his or her innermost being.” Rather, the various schools of mainstream Hindu thought (religions) all affirm truth and morality (although all religions have had deviant branches that denied these in theory or practice).
A more radically false statement is the suggestion that Hinduism teaches one to find God and salvation within oneself. That we can encounter the divine in our innermost being is not a strange idea to most Hindus; is God not in all things, including in us? But he is also beyond all things, and most Hindus look to the God (or gods) beyond, recognizing that God’s grace is necessary to help humans out of their existential dilemma(s). Thus puja (worship) is the central religious act of Hinduism, offered to various deities depending on one’s Hindu tradition. In theory Hindu teaching affirms three paths to salvation (knowledge, works or devotion), but in reality Hindusim is about devotion (bhakti).
Modern Hinduism is in transition, but since societies and civilizations are always transitioning this is no surprise. Modernization has brought fresh challenges to Hinduism, other civilizations and the world’s many religions. New religious movements are being born within Hinduism, new civilizational goals are being defined, new paradigms (particularly that of “Hindu nationalism”) are challenging traditional Hindu perceptions. The ferment of the times makes any prognosis about the future an extremely speculative affair, but Hindu civilization will certainly continue to adapt, adjust and thrive for many centuries.
This brief overview of paradigms for understanding Hindu phenomena needs to be supplemented with careful study of the history, theologies, sociology and practical life of Hindus and Hinduism. Ample room for disagreement exists on varying emphases in such complex study, but we need to discard standard orientalist and evangelical paradigms.
Recent scholarly insight into Hindus and Hinduism screams for application to contextual biblical witness for Christ in the Hindu world. The old paradigm of introducing the blessings of Christian civilization to replace Hindu civilization’s darkness is still apparent today in much Christian teaching and practice. This must be abandoned for an incarnational approach that seeks to plant the gospel within Hindu civilization. The fundamental stumbling block to the gospel for most Hindus remains that Christianity is a foreign religion; all evidence shows that this Hindu perception is true. Clearer thinking about Hinduism should lead to a deeper commitment to radically incarnational (contextual) approaches to the Hindu world. Hindus need to see and feel that Christ and his good news are vitally relevant within their civiliza-tional heritage. Without such shifts of paradigm and approach, we have little reason to hope that present and future Hindus will heed the biblical message any more than their forefathers.
1. Said wrote from a Middle Eastern perspective that barely mentioned India. For an appreciative but critical look at his work as it applies to India, with suggested refinements of his ideas, note Trautmann (1997, 19-27). Extended treatments of orientalist distortions of Indian realities can be studied in Inden (1990) and King (1991).
2. That Hinduism is a parliament of religions is almost a truism among many participants in South Asian life; for example R. C. Das (“Hinduism is not one religion. Many religions are covered by a meaningless term, ‘Hindu’”—1965, 158) and Dayanand Bharati (“Hinduism is called a parliament of religions”—2004, 3). It should be noted here that Stietencron’s proposal is not universally accepted among scholars. The quotations here are from his paper presented at the Ninth European Conference of Modern South Asia Studies in 1986. In his introduction to the published papers from this gathering, editor Herman Kulke refers to the “often heated and controversial discussions” (2001, 1), and suggests that Stitencron’s paper involved the “most radical reconstruction of Hinduism in this volume” (2001, 2). Nevertheless, papers in that same volume by Romila Thapar and R. E. Frykenberg largely support Stietencron, and the whole purpose of the gathering was to wrestle with the obvious need to move beyond essentialist definitions of Hinduism to recognition of the dynamic diversity of Hindu teachings and traditions.
3. Quoted from Sumithra (1990, 13), where no further reference is indicated. Note that Stietencron also suggests that “Hinduism” should “denote a socio-cultural unit or civilization which contains a plurality of distinct religions” (2001, 33).
4. Obviously in this alternate paradigm there are numerous “religions” within Hinduism, and syncretism with any and all of these needs to be avoided.
Bharati, Dayanand. 2004. Living Water and Indian Bowl. Rev. American ed. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Cohen, Bernard S. 2000. India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization. 2d ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Das, R. C. 1965. “Shree Shree Yeeshu Khrista: A Review of Benode Bihari Bandyopadhyaya’s Bengali Book ‘Jesus Christ the Beautiful: His Life and Discussion.’” Indian Journal of Theology 14(3): 150-161.
Frykenberg, Robert Eric. 2001. “The Emergence of ‘Hinduism’ as a Concept and as an Institution: A Reappraisal with Specific Reference to South India.” In Hinduism Reconsidered. 2d rev. ed., eds. Hermann Kulke and Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer. Delhi: Manohar.
Inden, Ronald B. 2000. Imaging India. 2d ed. London: C. Hurst & Co.
King, Richard. 1991. Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and “The Mystic East.” New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kulke, Hermann and Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, eds. 2001. Hinduism Reconsidered. 2d rev. ed. Delhi: Manohar.
Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Post, Werner. 1989. “Critique of Religion.” Sacramentum Mundi. Indian edition. Bangalore: Theological Publications in India.
Said, Edward W. 1994. Orientalism. 2d ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Stietencron, Heinrich von. 2001. “Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive Term.” In Hinduism Reconsidered. 2d rev. ed. eds. Hermann Kulke and Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer. Delhi: Manohar.
Sumithra, Sunand. 1990. Christian Theology from an Indian Perspective. Bangalore: Theological Book Trust.
Thapar, Romila. 2001. “Syndicated Hinduism.” In Hinduism Reconsidered. 2d rev. ed., eds. Hermann Kulke and Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer. Delhi: Manohar.
Trautmann, Thomas R. 1997. Aryans and British India. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications.
H.L. Richard is part of the Rethinking Forum (www.rethinkingforum.com), an association of scholars and activists focused on contextual biblical witness among Hindus.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 308-320. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.